I was in a photo blind photographing wildlife coming in to drink and bathe at a small pond on a private ranch in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas when two green jays (cyanocorax yncas) flew in for a drink. These are beautifully plumaged birds and in the United States you find them only in the Rio Grande Valley. I was concentrating on them while getting some very nice drinking and behavioral images when they split apart. One of the birds flew to the other side of the small pond, only about five feet away. I was still concentrating on the other bird when I heard a tremendously loud, raucous cry from the other birds. Green jays are talkative as you may know and their danger cry is unmistakable. I swung my lens over to see what was going on (I was in the photo blind and could not see out so I had to look through the lens.)
I could not believe what I was seeing. A large western diamondback rattlesnake (crotalus atrox) had apparently been hiding under the log the bird landed on and struck the jay right behind the head as it landed. I was so surprised I almost didn’t take a shot but reflexes prevailed and I fired off several shots as the bird fought to free itself from the fangs of the pit viper. You can actually see a small section of one of the fangs where it is buried in the neck of the jay. The two stayed frozen in this position for several minutes except for the bird periodically flapping its wings in a futile effort to free itself. Using a 1/125-second shutter speed, I captured slight motion blur of the wing flapping which provided a dynamic action feel to the otherwise sharp composition.
They stayed like this for several minutes until the jay succumbed to the poison. (This surprised me because rattlesnakes are usually ambush predators that strike their prey, envenomate, and then release the prey and follow the heat trail of the animal until the animal dies. This saves the rattler from suffering any damage from its prey as it fights to get away from the snake. However, when I thought about it, I realized this rattler would not let go of its prey because it must have some inborn or acquired sense that a bird will fly away and not leave a heat trail that it can follow so it must hold onto the bird until it dies.) It took about five minutes and then it began the laborious process of getting the bird into its mouth head-first so it could swallow it. That way the wings and feet would fold along the body making swallowing feasible. It took another ten minutes until the tips of the toes disappeared down the snake and I was able to record many additional images of the snake eating the bird. The final image in the sequence shows just a little of the feet disappearing into the snake’s mouth.
I did not want this rattlesnake hanging around the pond because I planned on photographing from the blind there for several more days. I captured the snake and took him quite a distance from the pond. However, the next day he was back under the same log so I admitted defeat and went to another location on the ranch for a few days. When I subsequently returned he had “left the building” so I was able to resume photographing at the pond. This was probably one of my most “striking” wildlife photography experiences. – Dave Welling
Equipment and settings: Nikon F5, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR II AF telephoto lens, Nikon SB-80 DX flash set for fill flash at -1 1/3 EV, Gitzo tripod – 1/125th at f/8, Velvia50 rated @ IS0100 (pushed one stop)
Dave Welling is a professional wildlife and nature photographer with over 70,0000 wildlife and nature images in his stock files. You can view his work on one of his stock web sites at www.strikingnatureimagesbydavewelling.com. Dave is also the major image contributor to TEXAS WILDLIFE PORTFOLIO by FarCountry Press. He has also produced SANCTUARY, a coffee table book of his 27 year relationship with a local wildlife rescue facility that tells the stories, in words and pictures, of many of the 76,000 wild animals that have found help or a home there. You can view this book at www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2018300.